The complex nature of American attitudes toward Nazi Germany prior to the U.S. entry into World War II were the subject of a virtual lecture presented March 29 by Fairfield University’s Judaic Studies Program and the Bennett Center for Judaic Studies.
Guest speaker Bradley Hart, associate professor at California State University in Fresno and author of the critically acclaimed book “Hitler’s American Friends: The Third Reich’s Supporters in the United States,” noted that many major U.S. corporations played an important role in the rise of Hitler’s regime and continued to do business with the Nazi government after World War II began September 1939.
“Some of America’s biggest corporations did business in the Third Reich, and very happily so,” said Hart. “The automotive industry was particularly egregious of this. Ford had a Cologne automotive plant that later was converted into aircraft engine production, forcibly by the Luftwaffe. General Motors also has its division in Germany. Both of these car makers decided not to pull out — they actually complied with the Nazi regime and put Nazi Party members on the board of directors and fired Jewish employees. They were very willing simply to collaborate.”
Hart pointed out that the involvement of U.S. companies in the rise of Nazi Germany can be traced to the pre-Nazi 1920s when banks loaned money to rebuild a post-World War I Germany “because they saw an opportunity there.” But when Hitler ascended to power in 1933, their business operations continued despite the severe changes in German domestic policies.
“This was a moment of moral testing for these corporations,” Hart said. “You had a regime that was asking you to fire employees because of their gender, their race and religion. And these companies didn’t refuse to divest from the German market.”
At least one major company continued business operations when Germany overran most of Europe. Hart noted that when a Ford Motor Co.-owned plant in France was destroyed in a British bombing mission in May 1942, company president Edsel Ford had an odd set of priorities regarding its destruction.
“Ford writes a letter because he’s seen a photo in the newspaper of the Ford plant being bombed — it’s actually on fire,” Hart continued. “But it’s not identified as the Ford plant and he writes, ‘Well, I’m glad they didn’t identify what the plant was, because that could look bad for us.’ It was more about a public relations problem than a moral or ethical problem.”
Hart’s book notes that a 1943 investigation by the U.S. government of the Ford operations that remained in wartime France were used “for the benefit of Germany” and were condoned by company founder Henry Ford, whose “name was irrevocably sullied” by his advocacy of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories in the 1930s.
Other major U.S. companies were also involved in the Third Reich’s rise to power.
“IBM had a German division that became involved in demography work and actually helped put together demographic models that will be related to the Holocaust later on,” Hart said. “Coca-Cola has a division in Germany — a lot of people don’t know this. There’s a great story: Coca-Cola was actually so popular in the Third Reich that there was a group of German POWs being brought into New York Harbor late in the war, and they saw a Coca-Cola billboard on one of the buildings in America and thought Coke was a German thing. This is the beginning of globalization.”
But Hart pointed out that the corporate world was not alone in initially viewing Nazi Germany with a sense of respect. The German-American Bund, a pro-Nazi organization of ethnic Germans living in the U.S., organized summer camps for youth and held rallies and marches extolling Hitler’s vision. The America First campaign sought to encourage isolationism as war raged in Europe, with iconic pilot Charles Lindbergh delivering addresses that many viewed as mirroring the Nazi anti-Semitic talking points.
“There were millions of Americans that engaged with a fascist-leaning media,” Hart said. “I’m thinking Father Coughlin, the most popular radio hosts in history with up to 30 million listeners on a weekly basis and an outright apologist for Nazi Germany in this period. You have Gerald B. Winrod, who is a Protestant wannabe-Coughlin in Kansas, who runs for Senate and only is defeated because the Republican Party steps in it and runs a former governor against him in the primary.
“It’s undeniable that what we would see as fascism or proto-fascism will always have some appeal for some number of people,” Hart added. “And I think, fortunately, it’s never been a majority in this country.”